How do Langston Hughes' poems "Dreams" and "Harlem" contrast in their meanings? 

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Langston Hughes was a literary giant in American poetry. Writing during the period called the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes focused most of his poetry toward the Black American in the mid twentieth century. However, Hughes' poems speak to anyone who has goals and dreams.

This first poem "Dreams" can be divided by anaphora, or repeated lines.

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die...

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go...

Hughes advises everyone, particularly the Negro, to never let go of their dreams. Using two beautiful metaphors, he suggests that if someone gives up on his hopes for the future, his life would be no better than a bird with a broken wing who cannot soar.

The other metaphor compares the loss of hope and dreams  to a pasture once beautiful, but now frozen and barren. In essence, Hughes tells his audience to dream and work toward achieving those goals.

The second poem "Harlem" [A Dream Deferred] has a different theme. Beginning with a rhetorical question, the poet asks what happens when a person has to postpone or put off his dreams?What happens to a dream deferred? The answer to the question comes in figurative, yet more earthy language. Using similes, the language describing the lost dreams becomes more disturbing:  

Is it like a luscious grape that lies in the sun too long?  

Does it ooze and become an infected sore?

Does it turn to rancid meat?

Does someone try to sugar coat it and pretend that it is okay?

Or does it weigh down the person like a hefty sack?

Or does it well up and finally blow up?

Hughes was referring to the battles that black America faced. The undercurrent was there festering in every Negro home in America. Equality and integration for all: if we do not get it, we do not know what will happen.

When Hughes was writing his poetry, it was before the start of the Civil Rights Movement. Black America struggled under the weight of segregation: poor housing, separate schools, and low paying jobs. 

"Dreams" advises a person never to give up on desires and goals. In contrast, "Harlem" is a warning to white America that this is where the black man stands: waiting too long for his complete freedom.